Miami book fair panelists describe what makes a “good book”

Photo by Maggie Diaz-Vera Pamela Paul, Ann Patchett, Nicholson Baker, Francine Prose and Walter Mosley describe what makes a "good book" for them in the panel event "By the Book: The New York Times Book Review Comes for Some Sun" at the 2014 Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, Nov. 23.

Photo by Maggie Diaz-Vera
[From left to right] Pamela Paul, Ann Patchett, Nicholson Baker, Francine Prose and Walter Mosley describe what makes a “good book” for them in the panel event “By the Book: The New York Times Book Review Comes for Some Sun” at the 2014 Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, Nov. 23.

Sunday, Nov. 23, I attended an event at Miami Book Fair International where editor Pamela Paul from The New York Times Book Review questioned Nicholson Baker, Walter Mosley, Ann Patchett and Francine Prose — novelists that contributed to her newest anthology — on the topic of “literature and their literary life.”

I took advantage of the Q-and-A session after their whole discussion and tossed them the question, “What makes a good book?”

“I’m really political,” Walter Mosley said, “ At some point or another, something can go awry politically for me, [it] might turn me away.”

If the politics are kosher for him, he then looks to language.

“It’s not just craft, not always craft, it’s the language and how well it flows forward for me,” he said.

Francine Prose agreed with Mosley.

“It’s all about sentences for me,” she said.

Nicholson Baker takes a different approach, he focuses on the person that’s writing.

“I like when somebody is funny and when I like the person. If I like the guy or gal who is writing the book, I think ‘OK, I’m willing to spend some time with this person,’ Baker said.

According to Baker, he also explores authors that aren’t being talked about as much.

“I often have a subversive streak where I want to read something that’s genre books or that are things that are not considered high literary books because I heard those names so often that I want to find out what people are doing who are less celebrated,” he said.

Paul added that Baker loved reading romance novels.

Ann Patchett said a good book was one that let her forget she was reading.

“When that part of my brain shuts off and I stop analyzing the book and figuring out how they did it, and I just fully enter in to it, then it becomes a truly great book,” she said.

Paul concluded she didn’t want to read about her city, she wanted to get away.

“For me, it’s about being transported,” said Paul. “I don’t want to read about other neurotic people my age in New York dealing with family and work, I want to be off in the Congo.”

At the end of the day, it seems each person has different criteria for a good book. Each panelist valued one thing more than the other, whether it was language, flow, writer or content. What might be a good book for each, might not be a good book for another. And that’s ok.

Baker addressed the issue earlier in the session when he spoke against writing negative book reviews.

“There’s a huge world of books and everybody has a different universe of interests. And I’ve gone through phases where I’ve loved certain books that I now don’t love as much, and I’ve also discovered books in my fifties that I thought I would never ever read,” Baker said. “It’s always a mistake, I think, to say bad things about other people’s books because you never know what phase someone else is gonna be in.”

Therefore, writers, keep the books coming. Even if you upset one reader like Mosley with your politics or can’t capture readers like Paul with your New York City romanticism, someone else might be interested in your work.

For more of the session, you can visit C-SPAN’s recording of it here.

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